Ariadne auf Naxos is not exactly the most sensible of operas, but this production makes surprisingly good sense of what is often rendered silly, and it respects the music both as ‘ein heilige Kunst’ and as entertainment. Katharina Thoma, making her UK directing début, has based her production around the concept of the English Stately Home, and inspired by such archive material as a deeply evocative photograph of tiny evacuees who lived in the house during the war, she and her designer, Julia Müer, have set the opera in the kind of surroundings which will be very familiar to those who have seen Brideshead Revisited and, of course, Downton Abbey – namely, an ancestral mansion pressed into service as a hospital for service personnel wounded in both mind and body.
Does it work? For the most part, yes, mainly because the director has allowed the music to speak without much in the way of extraneous business, the one offending scene in that respect being Zerbinetta’s big aria, where (sigh) we are subjected to the weary notion that coloratura must stem from sexual stimulation. The coup de theatre which brings the prologue to a dramatic close is a highly effective link to the opera itself, and it is brilliantly staged – a startlingly apt way to make sense of what follows, where we see Ariadne’s isolation arising from her dislocated mental state.
The singing was uneven in quality, with some great voices, some rather squally top notes and one or two stars in the making. Strauss was adamant that the mezzo-soprano “as a rule is the most talented woman singer in the theatre” and so it was here, with Kate Lindsey making her Glyndebourne and role début as a poetic, neurotic Composer. This must be one of the most sympathetic characters in all opera, and in a finely sensitive reading the director had him appearing throughout, mute in the opera yet clearly experiencing the reality of what he has composed, not as high and distant Art but as emotions felt by the characters he has created. Lindsey acted the role of the hyper-sensitive young man to perfection, and if one might yearn for a richer tone at times this was compensated for by the intensity of her phrasing.
Neither Ariadne nor Bacchus could be said to be having a good night; Soile Isokoski was a fairly muted heroine, the tone even and most of the notes in place, but there was little of the soaring ecstasy which her great set pieces should ideally have. Sergey Skorokhodov ‘s ‘god’ was here an ordinary chap, who has clearly taken a crate up and just about made it back; he seemed to be battling a cold or possibly first night nerves, since he was more comfortable in the lower-lying phrases and his high notes were often squally and indistinct.
Laura Claycomb looked wonderful as Zerbinetta, but her singing was often under-powered, those cruel high notes sometimes just out of reach. She had an exceptionally fine ‘troupe’ amongst which the tenor of Andrew Stenson stood out in a promising UK début. Another ‘star in the making’ was the Dryad of Adriana Di Paola – surely a future Composer here. Thomas Allen and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke were ideal casting as the Music and Dancing masters respectively, the former warmly sympathetic and the latter delightfully insouciant.
Vladimir Jurowski was conducting his first fully-staged Strauss opera, and he coaxed eloquent playing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, preserving the intimate quality of the work yet allowing for dramatic intensity where required. As the director remarked, “…there is probably no more fitting place for Ariadne auf Naxos than Glyndebourne…” and this first night was an auspicious beginning to Jurowski’s final season as Music Director.
If you have missed out on booking for the performances, it’s worth remembering that you can often obtain returns or restricted view seats via the excellent (free) Returns Club, and of course there’s always the opportunity to see it in the cinema, ‘live’ on Tuesday June 4th. Ariadne will also be the first of six performances from Glyndebourne to be available on the Guardian and Glyndebourne websites, and all will be available until August 31st.